Sensemaking - all about making sense

Sensemaking is the process that people instinctively use when in complex and difficult situations to make sense of what is happening and drive what they do.

Sensemaking is how people make sense of things

  • Our innovation: understanding how research participants have 'made sense of' a complex situation or difficult dilemmas. Examples include life-stage changes like retirement; social beliefs like vegetarianism; and products and services that are difficult to use - financial services for example.
  • The term sensemaking also applies to the discovery and analysis process that researchers and designers use to find connections and patterns in data.
  • It can be a workshop method to show organisations how to change the frames they use to guide their thinking. 

Four common characteristics of the different forms of sensemaking are:

  • People make sense of complicated or ambiguous situations (sometimes called 'wicked problems') by doing something.
  • People look for plausible  - not perfect - solutions
  • The process involves people integrating their experiences into the world as they see it
  • They see the world through a 'frame'  that in some cases is suitable for the problem at hand, and in some cases is not.

Our mentoring interview technique

Now more than ever before, people are muddling through the new world we live in, finding sense and meaning where they can. At Susan Bell Research we have designed a qualitative research tool to reveal people's implicit sensemaking processes in action. Our aim is to see the world from the other person's perspective. To do that the researcher must set aside his or her own framework of assumptions and presumptions. They then guide the interviewee to consider the multiple perspectives that may have created the 'frame' through which they are seeing this particular issue or problem.

As such, this method relies on the expert use of advanced qualitative research techniques such as narratives and projective techniques.

  • It is about understanding why people do what they do.
  • Is based on a blend of anthropology, sociology, and social psychology.

It is different from 'decision-making' research

Conventional decision-making research asks people about the 'decisions' they have made - about the product or brand they chose and what criteria they used to make their decision. This research typically

  • Assumes that a decision has been made, and doesn't allow for the fact that sometimes people just muddle through. 
  • Ignores everything that has led the person up to this point
  • Assumes that once the decision is made, it is made for ever

In confusing and new environments, the decisions that people make in life are not like that. We often find for example, that people 'wade into' situations and then need to make sense of what is happening around them before they can do anything. It is the doing of it that makes them think about it. Naturally and without intending to do so, people assign meaning to their experiences. It's an active, adaptive process often involving how they feel about themselves in that moment.

As a research agency, we are going out on a limb here, challenging the research industry to stop pretending that people make decisions in some kind of linear individualistic choice-modelling kind of way. 

Use Sensemaking instead of 'attitudinal research'

Traditionally, researchers have tried to reach inside people's heads, to see the 'attitudes' or 'motives'  which they presume to be the forces that guide behaviour. The problem is that these attitudes and motives are invisible to the human eye, and very difficult to correlate with any kind of behaviour.

Sensemaking research is a challenge to behavioural economics

Sensemaking projects are about how people actually behave in the real world not how they behave in experiments - which is where most of the behavioural economics theories originate. Sensemaking projects are non-judgmental. We don't say that people are flawed in their thinking. We say that people think the way they do to get things done in the best possible way they can at the time. Our job is to find out how they think.

CASE STUDY: Sensemaking explains the vegetarian experience perfectly

Take vegetarianism as an example. The vegetarian landscape is evolving rapidly, with the advent of plant-based foods. Becoming a vegetarian was always a big decision but now it has become more complicated. Our research based on sensemaking shows that becoming a vegetarian is not just a choice between different food products; it's a manifestation of someone's self-identity at a stage in their life. The decision to stop eating meat is only one part of it - vegetarians, pescatarians, flexitarians and others review and revise their diet on an alomost daily basis as they 'make sense of' how to balance their diet, their social beliefs and their social relationships. 

Three facts about sensemaking research

  1. Sensemaking projects are interview-based projects. 

  2. They are ethnographic in that they seek to understand the person's world in situ

  3. They are based on story-telling. When people want to make sense of what they are doing or bring sense to what just happened to them, they tell a story about it. So, we gain insight into how people make sense of their experiences by listening to how they talk about the actions they took.

This is fresh thinking. You will not find this kind of research anywhere else. We are always happy to challenge existing ways of doing things.


Tags: Experiences, sense-making, Decision Making, Naturalistic decision making, People-centred research, Vegetarian, Wicked problems

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